Thursday, September 01, 2011

Back In The Day: The NASL's Longest Game

NASL, North American Soccer League

By Michael Lewis, NEW YORK, NY (Sep 1, 2011),US National Team Players Association

Until that night 40 years ago, Carlos Metidieri had never been thanked by an opponent for scoring the winning goal in a soccer game. Then again, Metidieri and his Rochester Lancers and Dallas Tornado had never played in a game like the one they had participated in on September 1st, 1971.

After Metidieri connected for the winner in the Lancers' 2-1 victory over the Dallas Tornado in the 1971 North American Soccer League playoffs, a Tornado player approached him moments later and said: "Thank you Carlos for scoring a goal because we couldn't do it anymore."

The teams had just played - no make that endured and survived - 176 tortuous minutes of soccer. The game was only four minutes short of two full 90-minute matches. It began at 8 pm and ended at 11:59 pm - one minute before midnight - before 8,309 fans at Holleder Stadium in Rochester, NY.

Today, Major League Soccer and the United Soccer Leagues in the United States use extra time and a penalty-kick tie-breaker to decide playoff matches and prevent marathon games. In 1971, however, NASL playoff games were played out until literally there was a last team standing.

"It was like being in the desert without water for four weeks," Lancers forward Manny Seissler said after the game.

Lancers coach Sal DeRosa called it the "most unbelievable game I have ever seen."

Indeed, even if that seemed to fall short of describing what transpired that late summer night.

After they had traded goals in regulation, Rochester and Dallas battled into extra time. Each extra time - technically, it was called overtime in those days - lasted 15 minutes. Like the National Hockey League playoffs, the teams continued to play until someone scored, although the soccer designers probably thought it highly unlikely that a game would need six of those overtime periods.

Metidieri, the man of the hour - or would it be more appropriate to say he was the man of four hours? - picked it up from there.

"Going to the bench for the second overtime, we could tell looking at the guys' faces we were giving up a bit," he said. "We were tired. Some of the guys changed shoes. Some had cramps."

Dallas defender Gabbo Gavric's thigh cramped in the 165th minute. Since both sides had used their allotted substitutions, Gavric stayed around the center circle for the rest of the match, kicking the ball whenever it was in his vicinity.

"My body didn't bother me as much as my feet," Metidieri said. "I remember my feet going crazy. I went through two pairs of shoes. And after a while the ground got so hard our muscles were giving up. We tried throwing water in the shorts. We bit oranges and put ice in our mouths. It look like we were going to get fat instead of losing weight because we were going through oranges and coffee and all that stuff. It was a painful experience."

A painful experience that seemed like it was never going to end.

Metidieri said that by the time the players went out for the third overtime "the players were even more tired and so were the people in the stands. But they didn't move. They wanted to see what was going to happen. It was sometime around midnight and there was a throw-in near where my wife was sitting. I told her to start cooking breakfast and that I might be there in a couple of hours."

DeRosa and Dallas coach Ron Newman, who would later coach Kansas City in the early days of Major League Soccer, pleaded with NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam several times, ask him to stop the game of have it decided by penalty kicks or even by the number of penalty kicks already taken. After the fifth overtime, Woosnam said that he would wait and see.

So the game went on and on and on. Finally, in the sixth overtime, Metidieri scored off a poor clearance by a Dallas defender.

"I got the ball from the right side," Metidieri said. "Ken Cooper [the Dallas goalkeeper and Kenny Cooper's father) went down and missed. I was coming from the left side and I just hit it right and it went into the net. I looked around and saw our players falling down and then I saw fans coming onto the field, putting players up on their shoulders. It was like there was a pot of gold on the field and everyone wanted to get rich. It was like we won the championship. They went wild."

"For about 15 minutes I was riding the backs of people up and down," Metidieri added. "They were throwing me like a beach ball. That was fun. It was one of the greatest feelings to be on top, to see the people love you and see them excited because you won the game. It was the biggest moment of my career."

Some strong words for the only player in NASL history to win back-to-back scoring titles and MVP awards. As it turned out, despite the 12th-hour heroics in the marathon affair, that game was not for the championship. That was the first match of a best-of-three series.

That night Metidieri told reporters, "I think this will take the stuffing out of them. We shouldn't have too much trouble with them in Dallas."

But it wasn't so.

The Tornado won the next two games. The final game, quite appropriately, took 148 minutes, also at Holleder. But it was won by the Tornado, which went on to defeat the Atlanta Chiefs for the title. That was the second longest game in NASL history, but hardly anyone remembers that match in comparison to what happened forty years ago tonight.


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